25 MAR 2019: Wales is a beautiful corner of the world.  It is a land of rolling hills and roaming sheep, a land of legends and beautiful voices to tell or sing of those legends.  It boasts of more castles per square mile than any other land.  Its coastline is rugged, parts of its interior are mountainous while a variety of parks offer hiking and cycling trails, lakes and beautiful scenery.  

Its people speak a distinctive Welsh language (as well as English) and offer a unique Celtic culture.  The Welsh are proud of their fine local cuisine, especially their lamb and produce.  They even distill Welsh whisky!

And then there are its many beautiful public gardens, about a dozen of them, which draw garden lovers and horticulturists from all over the world.  Amongst these, the one known as Aberglasney, in Carmarthenshire in south Wales is probably the most unusual as it is a restoration of one of Britain’s oldest surviving gardens, dating back, it is believed, around seven centuries.  It’s set in the heart of the beautiful Tywi Valley, close to many renowned castles and lovely market towns.  But what makes Aberglasney so special?  It’s called ‘A Garden Lost in Time’ because until fairly recently it had almost vanished.  For half a century the estate had been left to ruin and decay.  The stately house was stately no longer, on the grounds trees had grown too tall, bushes had run wild and ivy had invaded the massive walls and parapets.

But early in the 1990s a group of people became interested in the site.  Almost hidden in the jungle an unusual layout was suspected, arcaded terraced walkways suggested an ancient garden, some thought a yew tunnel was around 1,000 years old.  Experts were consulted, a trust was established, money was raised and restoration began.

Five years of historical, archaeological and botanical study and restoration followed.  As the garden was carefully cleared, a series of walled enclosures became apparent, a fishpond was discovered fed by springs which were channelled under the house, an Elizabethan cloister was restored, an old vine house was revealed and a garden walk which led to the church in the village became apparent.  Throughout the process endangered species were rescued and remnants of history discovered.  Soon those involved in all this work began to imagine the garden with orchard and vegetables,  flower beds and woodland walks.

The dedication of those involved in this restoration was rewarded as the magic and beauty of the site was slowly restored and eventually, in midsummer 1999, although the work was still unfinished, the gardens were opened to the public.  Tourist attraction signs appeared on highways, articles appeared in newspapers; a television series on the gardens was screened for Welsh viewers, shortly followed by a national screening on BBC.  By opening before the final touches were made, the powers-that-were thought they would engage visitors with the process, encourage return visits and even, perhaps, receive some local lore and some creative suggestions.

All this, in fact, happened and now, twenty years later, the Garden Lost in Time is one of Wales’s most popular attractions. Today there is much to see, including a parapet walk and cloister garden, the upper walled garden and kitchen garden, the Pigeon House Wood and the stream garden, an aviary and pool garden, Church View Wood as well as the Gardener’s cottage and Aberglasney House itself.  Views of the surrounding countryside are magnificent.

While respecting the past and the estate’s history, those involved with the renewal here also wanted to be forward looking.  They wanted the gardens to be home to music, poetry, art and dance.  To offer a location where merriment could be found as well as tranquillity. The restored house hosts a variety of special events such as weddings, there’s a cafe with sunny patio offering lunches and teas (using produce from the garden and other local foods), there’s a picnic spot, guides to guide you if you wish and a gift shop.

And there’s a Canadian connection to be found in the shop: the photographs illustrating the handsome book telling the story of the Aberglasney estate and its gardens were taken by Canadian photographer Kathy de Witt.  The author of this handsome volume - Penny David - tells not only the story of the gardens at Aberglasney, but also pieces together what is known of some of the estate’s inhabitants through the ages and the role it played in World War II when American soldiers were billeted on the estate.  Fascinating indeed is the vignette of Charles Mayhew and his wealthy wife Mary who, in the early nineteen hundreds, owned and lived in Aberglasney along with their 30 servants.  Locals love hearing stories of Colonel Mayhew’s virulent teetotalism.  He closed down all the pubs on his estate and in the village.  He made his tenants, on threat of eviction, sign the Pledge.  He built, at Mary’s expense, a handsome Temperance Hall in the field above their house.  But this building saw a complete reversal of fortune when it was turned into a bar for soldiers during WWII.  And Mayhew himself died after he caught a chill, which turned to pneumonia, at a temperance meeting.  A fate that a nip of Welsh whisky might have averted!

The gardens are open every day except Christmas day.  The estate offers two five-star holiday cottages close to the gardens which are charming.  And the surrounding area is full of interest.  The nearby market town of Llandeilo is the gateway to the stunning Brecon Beacons National Park while the country town of Carmarthen, which gives the county its name, is just 12 miles away.  Garden lovers will also wish to visit the National Botanic Garden of Wales which is within easy reach, as are other parks and attractions. And for poetry lovers there is Dylan Thomas’s Boathouse situated on the beautiful Taf estuary.  But that, of course, is another Welsh story.

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Ann Wallace

Ann Wallace is living a writer's dream currently writing of her adventures as she and her husband sail their boat around Europe.

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